The proper response
by Melissa Barecca
The proper response
Gulf casinos' actions after Katrina reaffirmed their commitment to their community, but there are still lessons to be learned
Public Relations by Melissa Barreca & Kathy Callahan
When Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast, the casino industry had braced itself for the worst. Or so we thought.
Few industry insiders predicted the broad-reaching devastation that the storm would have on the region, nor did they anticipate that as Katrina shifted course, an entire industry in one region would be crippled.
Following the storm, casino companies scrambled to assess damage and take care of thousands of employees whose lives had so suddenly been changed. As the industry began to pick up the pieces, the true enormity of the task that lay ahead loomed like another approaching storm on the horizon.
Hurricane Katrina dealt casino companies both an unequalled challenge to overcome total devastation as well as an unparalleled opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of people who had lost everything.
For most casinos, the vital, life-saving operational task of getting people out of harm's way before the storm depended on their ability to implement a thoughtful crisis communication plan. The decision to close for business needed to be made quickly while communication with employees was still viable. As could be predicted in a natural disaster of this magnitude, once the storm hit, communication channels would be spotty at best and mostly non-existent.
When the storm eventually passed, it left an eerie quiet. People in the region found themselves in a bubble of silence…seeing the devastation but having no access to information that would allow them to put their situation in a larger context or answer their questions.
The casinos that had previously determined their procedures to disseminate information to employees, guests and the public at large, were able to hit the ground running following the storm, setting a tone of leadership and dependability. Several casino companies were able to inspire confidence from Wall Street to Main Street by doing several things right immediately following the disaster:
• They decided on initial courses of action quickly and had information out to the media, on the Web and available on public disaster hotlines within hours of the storm.
• They weren't afraid to say what they didn't know. They knew that stakeholders needed initial reassurance and didn't necessarily expect immediate answers.
• They didn't wait to announce plans until every last detail was ironed out. Instead, they decided where the company needed to make a commitment and they did it without hesitation. Some casinos announced as quickly as the day after the storm that they would continue to pay all employees, that they had established disaster relief funds and many other positive initiatives that addressed immediate concerns.
• They focused on their own employees first and then quickly voiced their commitment to rebuilding the entire community. Some of the companies that were the hardest hit by Katrina were the first to commit aid to the region in the form of funding and supplies.
• They brought the company's full resources to bear in efforts to recover and rebuild. They determined how much money they could dedicate to relief, and also looked at tangible assets they could deploy, like volunteers, supplies and facilities that could be used to shelter evacuees.
• Some companies went even further above and beyond expectations. Notable examples are Harrah's special Employee Assistance Centers offering a full range of services-even airlifting supplies on the company's corporate jet. Station Casinos offered a special job fair for Katrina evacuees in the week following the storm to immediately help those displaced begin to rebuild their lives.
Learning from mistakes
It's also important to note that not all communications following the storm were on target. There were some missed opportunities and missteps that every company can learn from:
• The prolonged silence from several companies was distressing. As their response to the storm moved at a slower pace, employees, the public and other stakeholders were left to wonder about the future and possibly doubt the capability of corporate leadership.
• Rather than provide updates on the Web, some casinos literally just erased properties in Biloxi and Gulfport from their sites. It may have been more appropriate at minimum to keep a link with a one-page note about the property status and a wish for employee safety.
• A few companies went on with marketing plans, giving an impression that Katrina was just a blip on their radar screens. Announcements of cancelled events at destroyed properties were unnecessary. Some scheduled events, such as groundbreaking ceremonies in other locations, went on as planned but perhaps could have been delayed to avoid seeming insensitive to the crisis.
The aftermath of Katrina is not only filled with hope for a rebirth in the Gulf Coast, but also ripe with lessons that we can all take away to be better prepared in the future.
Congratulations to all of the companies that rose to the occasion and were able to make a real difference in the lives of their employees and communities. All of us can learn from your example. CJ
Melissa Barreca is communications project manager at Ameristar Casino St. Charlesin St. Charles, Mo. She can be reached at (800) 325-7777, or by e-mail at email@example.com. Kathy Callahan is director of communications for Ameristar's corporate office in Las Vegas. She can be reached at (702) 567-7053, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.